Remember at the end of Avengers: Infinity War when Thanos appears in Wakanda and just starts flipping boys like pancakes? He absolutely tears through everyone, gets chopped by Thor, and then snaps his fingers and wipes out half the universe?
Well, there’s that part afterward where everyone’s confused, and T’Challa doesn’t just look around like everyone else is doing. He gets up and goes to go Okoye to help her to her feet, and he says:
“Up, general, up. This is no place to die.”
He said that facetiously, but also in earnest. Yes, they got whooped, but they weren’t dying (yet). And, yes, things looked bleak, but there was still fight in them. There was a chance.
That’s kind of what the Rockets are facing now. Things look bad, but it’s not over yet; there’s still a lot of basketball left. It’s James Harden telling the Rockets to get back up and fight.
But instead of turning into dust like Black Panther did, Harden is more like Captain Marvel coming to save the universe. All of the Avengers getting flipped are the Rockets starters, and Thanos is the personification of injuries. And instead of Thanos snapping his fingers, it’s Clint Capela’s thumb.
The main thing to focus on here is not panicking. Houston is not in a limbo where it’s deciding what moves need to be made next in order to win. They’re just biding time.
Time may be on their side too.
Eric Gordon may be on his way back to the court this week, and he’s looking good in warm ups.
Chris Paul is also expected to make his return some time this month, most likely by the end of January. The big issue is arguably the Rockets’ second-best player, Capela, being out four to six weeks with a thumb injury.
This means that the Rockets are looking at maybe two weeks of extreme hardship, and at least a month of just regular hardship.
Nothing James Harden and company can’t handle.
While making a trade to fill the lapse in time might seem like a good move, it most likely isn’t. The thing with not panicking is not making long-term decisions for a short-term problem. Yes, if they can trade up in talent like they would have before the injuries, that is an acceptable trade. But if they’re trading legitimate assets, ie. Danuel House, just to get a loaner starting center, this isn’t the way to go about it.
I’m totally against a competitive team looking to make trades out of desperation. The Rockets were experiencing success with the team they have now, and they should only make a trade to boaster their roster for the future (like when Colin Connors went shopping in the East), and not just for what’s going to be out on the court. Instead, the Rockets need to boast the assets that they actually have and give them opportunity on the court.
On the Court
Houston may be small, but they’re strong and athletic and willing to play hard on defense.
It might just be one sample, but Houston had a lot of success on Monday in their win against a bigger Memphis Grizzlies team. The Rockets’ wing players were able to run the Grizzlies off the three-point line, and despite the fact that Memphis did have 50 points in the paint, Houston did a great job in covering their weak side and swarming down low. The Rockets played the lanes well and forced a lot of errors on the inside, and that’s the kind of basketball they will have to play to find some success on defense.
On offense, this team has its surprises. Harden may be carrying the load, but there’s still about 60 other points to be accounted for. Role players have stepped up greatly for Houston during these trying times.
Danuel House Jr. is putting in an incredible 30 minutes a game and scoring just under 12 points on 48-percent from the field and 51-percent from three. Austin Rivers, who can’t have enough said about him, has been exactly what Houston needed for this stretch and for the rest of the season.
Rivers has immediately made his mark with Houston, averaging 13 points a game on 46-percent from the field and 40-percent from three in just 11 games with Houston. Not to mention, he’s been fantastic on defense. Then, there have been the much-needed returns of a white-hot Gerald Green, reliable Nene, and a defensive-minded James Ennis III.
The only question that remains is what does Coach Mike D’Antoni plans to do at the center position? Does he look to give time to Marquese Chriss and/or Isaiah Hartenstein, both of whom have struggled to crack the roster? Or, does he look to continue to be small and give Nene minutes while sticking guys like Gary Clark Jr. at the 5?
More than likely, those problems won’t be addressed until they’re actual problems. If Houston can get away with sharing minutes with their forwards at the center position, they will.
Of course, all this speculation works mostly because Harden has been on a tear. This is optimism at its finest. If he’s going to keep getting at least 40 and 8 a night, then the rest of the team simply has to pull its weight and make their shots. The good news is that there looks to be no signs of slowing down for the MVP, and if he can continue this run until most, or all, their starters are back, they can get out of this mess with some minor bumps and bruises.
Finally, the biggest reason for Houston not to panic is their favorable scheduling. Don’t get the situation confused, there are still plenty of opportunities for some surprise losses, but they still have a great chance of beating the majority of their remaining opponents in January. They’ve already beaten a team they’re “supposed” to beat in the Grizzlies.
Five of the Rockets’ final seven opponents this month include the Brooklyn Nets, a LeBron James-less Lakers, New York Knicks, Orlando Magic, and New Orleans Pelicans. The other two teams are Eastern Conference juggernauts, Philadelphia 76er’s and the Toronto Raptors.
Assuming that both Eric Gordon and Chris Paul are back by the end of January, all Houston has to do is try to win at least four of these games to stay in the middle of that pack in the West playoff race.
This is all just a formula, though.
Houston may have solid role players and arguably the best player the the league right now, but they’re still not deep by any stretch of the imagination, and somehow even smaller. These final seven games of January can go bad if they let it.
Luckily for them, a lot of these upcoming games can be willed by a Harden monster night and two other guys stepping up - and any of them are capable of stepping up on a nightly basis. They also won’t have to do it for that long until two of their three starters return. For now, though, it’s important for Houston to focus on what they do have and take it one game at a time.
Also, if James Harden really wants to prove he’s the MVP, it’s been served up to him on a golden platter.